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The last of Kenny

Kenny Wheeler Songs for QuintetFor a while, at the beginning, I was put off by the seemingly flawless surface of Kenny Wheeler’s music. That swooping, soaring, almost frictionless lyricism that poured from his trumpet seemed too good to be true, and I couldn’t find the humanity in it. Eventually I began to comprehend the subtle nature of Kenny’s very personal conception and, having finally got the point, joined the many who admired him so greatly.

His death last September, at the age of 84, provoked mourning and tributes around the world. Then came the news that, nine months earlier, and already ailing, he had gone into a London studio to record a last album with four of his regular musical companions: the tenor saxophonist Stan Sulzmann, the guitarist John Parricelli, the bassist Chris Laurence and the drummer Martin France.

That album, Songs for Quintet, is released this month on the ECM label, for whom he recorded on and off for 40 years, and we must thank the producers of the session, Manfred Eicher and Steve Lake, for the decision to take this final opportunity to capture Kenny’s spirit on record.

His strength was beginning to go, but the unfamiliar sense of vulnerability that occasionally shows in his work — on flugelhorn only throughout the album’s nine pieces — never obstructs the music’s clarity or emotional impact. You would not want to miss his opening statement on “The Long Waiting”, a most elegant ballad, or the way he vaults into the theme of “Sly Eyes” over France’s parade-ground snare drum.

In any case, this is a record of a group playing Kenny’s tunes, so gorgeously stimulating for improvisers, rather than a showcase for the leader’s playing. One or two are familiar from earlier records, but all confirm the impression that other musicians will be exploring their glowing contours for many years to come. Here they draw a wonderful response from each of the musicians but in particular from Sulzmann, a collaborator for many years: a quiet presence with a gift for locating the essence of each composition and never playing a wasted note, he supports and sometimes takes the initiative in what may be a career-best performance.

As a graceful coda to a wonderful career, Songs for Quintet is not to be missed by anyone who ever fell under Kenny’s spell, however belatedly.

* The photograph of Kenny Wheeler was taken by Caroline Forbes at the Abbey Road studios during the Songs for Quintet sessions in December 2013 and appears in the album insert.

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. gp #

    Thank you. I have the same initial difficulties in fully appreciating him but now am curious. Any recommendation on early records?

    January 10, 2015
    • Yes — Gnu High and Music for Large and Small Ensembles, both on ECM

      January 10, 2015
      • gp #

        thanks – I will try them

        January 12, 2015
  2. Jeffery Gifford #

    Kenny Wheeler had a sound that made the trumpet sound appealing. I don’t know how else to put that. Trumpet in general doesn’t beckon my attention, always seems a little over the top and “Look at me !” Kenny Wheeler broke through that defense in my listening whenever he played. Tomasz Stanko, Miles Davis and Chet Baker have a similar good effect. I’ve always wondered how Kenny Wheeler got Keith Jarrett to be a sideman on a project like Gnu High. Keith always has to be lead dog in most any project. There must have been something in Kenny Wheeler as a man and artist that bid him to drop his defenses and be a sideman again like he once did with Miles himself. Thanks for the heads up SONGS FOR QUINTET Richard. He will be missed.

    January 10, 2015
    • crocodilechuck #

      “I’ve always wondered how Kenny Wheeler got Keith Jarrett to be a sideman on a project like Gnu High” [snip]

      Because of Manfred Eicher, who shrewdly husbanded Jarrett’s early career on his fledgling label. NB this was the last time KJ ever performed in this capacity

      To respond to gp’s request above, try this, as well:

      Last, when are these stunning recordings ever going to be released on cd?

      January 10, 2015
      • geoffn #

        All Kenny Wheeler’s records with Braxton are worth hearing. I was fortunate enough to be at the Montreux concert in 1975. The bill that night included Bill Evans with Eddie Gomez, Charles Mingus (with Gerry Mulligan dropping in for Goodbye Pork Pie Hat) and Andrew Hill.

        For many in the audience, the Braxton Quartet was the high spot of the evening; no mean feat in such company.

        January 11, 2015
      • Jeffery Gifford #

        I can believe that GNU HIGH was the last time that Keith Jarrett was in a sideman role. I’ll have to look into the albums with Kenny Wheeler and Anthony Braxton. That’s an interesting collaboration of talent and could yield some good results. Thanks for that.

        January 13, 2015
  3. geoffn #

    One quality of KW was his keenness to play with, and compose for, certain musicians over a long period. In this way he seemed to assimilate the timbres and voices of individual soloists, much as Ellington did. Norma Winstone, John Taylor, Dave Holland and latterly John Parricelli come to mind.

    Stan Sulzmann, who spoke so movingly at the memorial service, can barely have been out of his teens when he and Kenny first played together. Mike Gibbs’ band in 1970, I think.

    Stan is playing better than ever these days and how fitting that he should be present on this last session. I look forward to hearing it.

    January 10, 2015
    • Mick Steels #

      Agree about Stan Sulzmann a very underrated musician, his playing as always carried a calm authority right from the early days with Collier,Gibbs & Taylor through his fruitful collaborations with Gordon Beck. The Jigsaw project with Marc Copeland & Drew Gress shows how at home Stan was in such a challenging situation, and, of course, he was the perfect partner for Kenny

      January 10, 2015
  4. I first saw Kenny Wheeler play live in September 1971 with the Ronnie Scott Band (nine piece) in the Bluecoat Chambers, Liverpool. Karl Jenkins was on baritone sax (and oboe). I had been fan of Kenny’s since the late 1950s. A few years later I first saw Stan Sulzmann play with Kenny at the Banyan Tree Club (in the Adelphi Hotel), Liverpool. Decades later I saw then play ‘live’ in a gig in Nottingham. I recall that the more gregarious Stan did most of the presentations and number introductions instead of the always reticent Kenny – Stan introduced himself as ‘Cockney’ Stan Sulzmann.
    To say that I miss Kenny Wheeler’s playing, compositions and arranging talents is a vast understatement – I have so many recordings by Kenny on L.P.s, C.D.s, cassette recordings from radio from the 1970s, etc., you wouldn’t believe it.
    Thanks to Richard for highlighting the upcoming release of Kenny’s final recording.

    January 11, 2015

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